Thursday, November 16, 2017

Brucknerian transcendence in a virtual cathedral


Carl St. Clair, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Carl St. Clair and the Pacific Symphony Orchestra perform Bruckner's Eighth Symphony beneath visualizations by Nick and Clemens Prokop.
Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony at a London Royal Albert Hall Prom was the first “classical” concert that I ever attended, well over 50 years ago, when the symphonies of both Bruckner and Mahler were emerging at last from their predominantly mainland Europe concert presence to truly international recognition. Since then, Mahler has gone on to become one of the few composers – together with, say, Mozart, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff – that virtually ensure a full house. Bruckner, on the other hand… not so much. Aspects of his symphonies – non-romantic in any conventional sense, with protracted formal workings-out and orchestral textures that often feel austere and monolithic – seem to bore and even repel many listeners. These lengthy works can seem fractured and endless in unsympathetic hands, and his style as a whole resists easy absorption into the whirl of orchestral concert planning. 

All hail, therefore, to the Pacific Symphony and Carl St. Clair for not simply programming a Bruckner symphony, but attempting to tailor an audio-visual context to properly prepare the audience for the experience. For the subject of this "Cathedrals of Sound" presentation, they were canny in their choice of the Eighth Symphony, to most Bruckner devotees arguably the greatest of the lot and, along with the Fifth Symphony, one of the two that are so extensive that they normally fill an entire concert, so that the issue of which other work(s) to program them with does not arise.

The Norbertine Fathers perform in the foyer.
The first element of this conceptual framework was the standard Pacific Symphony concert preview by Alan Chapman, who interviewed Nick and Clemens Prokop, the German designers of the lighting and video installation that would accompany the performance itself. After this, patrons gathered in the main lobby where, grouped around a purpose-made light sculpture (above), 15 members of the Norbertine community of priests and seminarians at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, CA, intoned a short sequence of Gregorian chant. In principle this was a wonderful idea, with the glistening surfaces of the lofty space providing a visually striking and audibly resonant backdrop, but sadly the atmosphere of timeless contemplation did not penetrate beyond the tight circle of standing listeners to quieten later arrivals entering the lobby behind. 

The next layer of acclimation to Bruckner’s world lay inside the hall where quiet organ music played by Christoph Bull accompanied audience seat-finding (but was I alone in finding the idea of using Bach, no less, as background to this mundane activity a bit at odds with the ethos of the evening?). Then, at last, with the audience in place and the hall lights lowered, the Norbertine Fathers re-entered, proceeding in stately single file down the aisles on each side of the hall, chanting as they came on stage to group in a semi-circle. 

Carl St. Clair introducing the Eighth Symphony.
Carl St. Clair then arrived, to deliver an eloquent, and indeed, heartfelt introduction to the symphony and its composer. He had been wanting to program this work for a long time, but only now felt ready for the challenge. He outlined Bruckner’s life from his humble Austrian peasant origins, his childhood as a choirboy at the nearby monastery of St. Florian and early mastery of the organ there (in the crypt beneath which, now known as the “Bruckner Organ”, he is buried), his long apprenticeship as a composer, his late success at the age of 60 with his Seventh Symphony, and then the unfortunate negative reaction by his collaborator, the conductor Hermann Levi, to the first version of the Eighth

Alongside this Mr. St. Clair gave due weight to Bruckner’s lifelong piety, illustrated by the Norbertine Fathers with a performance of his earliest surviving composition, a short Pange lingua written when he was only 11 years old. After some more Gregorian chant, Christoph Bull gave a couple of tasters of the symphony itself, the contrasting openings of the  Scherzo second movement and then that of the great ensuing Adagio. Finally, he played the St Anne fugue BWV552/2 from Bach’s German Organ Mass with its close, but apparently coincidental, similarity to the hymn-tune “O God our help in ages past”, after which the Norbertine Fathers exited the stage singing the hymn itself to close this long and largely successful exercise in scene-setting.

Christoph Bull.
If I have a criticism of Mr. St. Clair’s preparatory exposition, it was that he devoted little time to Bruckner’s progress as a symphonist per se, nor said very much about the musical structure of the Eighth Symphony itself. This was ironic because if his performance had one overriding virtue among many, it was structural cogency rather than any overt attempt to emphasize, through exaggeratedly slow tempi or interpretative point-making, the spiritual or cosmic vistas that this symphony can easily be felt to open up. Instead, it was a thought-through, architectonic interpretation that moved easefully from stage to stage of Bruckner’s symphonic argument, expressed through thoroughly-rehearsed orchestral playing that was often thrilling in its impact and accuracy. 

Anton Bruckner towards
the end of his life.
Mr. St. Clair’s urgent, purposeful account of the first movement made it seem the very opposite of prolix, and the towering central climax in particular, where Bruckner brings his two main themes together like armies clashing on a battlefield, was marvelously achieved. The solo flute left playing after this cuts off at its peak can rarely have sounded so inconsolable. Again and again the marvelous Segerstrom acoustic revealed inner details of Bruckner’s scoring that I’d never noticed before, and rarely have I enjoyed a Bruckner performance that so skillfully avoided any tendency to turgidity, even though at around 83 minutes total duration it was in fact not particularly fast overall. 

So what of the Prokops’ visual enhancements? On three screens above the orchestra a shifting slide-show largely concentrated on the exterior environment and then interior details of the St. Florian monastery for the first movement, while the propulsive, rising principal motif of the Scherzo, not a million miles from Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, introduced a long aerial tracking shot, soaring above the Austrian countryside across all three screens. Mr. St. Clair’s account of this movement, the longest and most discursive of all Bruckner’s scherzos, was notably fast and driven, and I did feel that the Trio section, where for the first time Bruckner introduced harps into a symphony, could have relaxed a little more. 

I confess that I barely noticed the visuals during the Adagio, its spacious serenity and then slow climb to the pinnacle of exaltation seeming, as ever, to stop time – though equally as ever, I felt the jolt from the loss of a short, soft, linking passage between two louder sections near the final climax, removed as they were by Leopold Nowak, editor of the edition most frequently played (as here), from the less scholarly rigorous but more sympathetically imaginative edition by his predecessor, Robert Haas. 

At the finale’s thunderous, timpani-pounding opening, the light and the images noticeably deepened to a Mordorish-red – not inappropriate at such a moment – while Bruckner’s recapitulation commenced beneath the powerful image of his face carved in stone, towering above the orchestra to virtually Mount Rushmore proportions on all of the three screens. Generally however, I felt that this obviously elaborate and presumably costly visual exercise did not justify itself in terms of enhancing the music. This mighty symphony simply doesn’t need any extra-musical help to make its full impact, particularly in a performance as masterly as this.

The Bruckner Organ in St. Florian.

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, November 9, 2017, 8 p.m.
Images: Bruckner: A. Huber, Vienna; Carl St. Clair, Norbertine Fathers, the performance: Nicholas Koon/Pacific Symphony; Christoph Bull: Courtesy Ian Erlich; Bruckner Organ.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Preu’s thoughtful Veterans Day program at Long Beach


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

For his second concert as Music Director of the LBSO, Eckart Preu answered the annual challenge of commemorating Veterans Day with an imaginative and wide-ranging program – as we’re rapidly coming to realize is characteristic of this conductor. In his pre-concert talk, he averred his intention to avoid a “pops concert”, taking an approach that followed two routes, firstly to honor the heroism inherent in the occasion, and then to celebrate America. Though not stated as such, one could easily take the result as refuting crude triumphalism and jingoism, and celebrating not only the country’s natural beauty and grandeur but also the welcoming inclusiveness that in the past has informed the national character. 

Aaron Copland.
So – the first sounds heard were familiar enough, but the unison fortissimo slam of timpani, bass drum, and tam-tam followed by upward leaping unison trumpets that herald Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man never fail in their gut-trembling effect, and this was no exception. In 1942, only months after Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War 2, the conductor Eugene Goossens asked American composers for fanfares to precede his upcoming Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra season concerts. Copland’s response was a powerful and unexpected affirmation, and Goossens wrote that "its title is as original as its music… I think it is so telling that it deserves a special occasion for its performance.” Seventy-five years on, at this special occasion, it had lost none of its power. 

Such is the beauty and memorability of Samuel Barber’s 1936 Adagio for Strings that it has become a kind of unofficial mourning anthem for, among other things, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of those “common men” in the fight for freedom. Maestro Preu’s interpretation was blessedly free from mawkishness and exaggeratedly slow tempi, sensitively played by the LBSO strings, and unfolded with an easy naturalness through which flowed unhindered the Adagio’s poignant blend of contemplation and consolation. 

To follow this, as the conductor had previously noted, the utmost contrast was needed. The Armed Forces Salute is a potpourri of tunes associated with various branches of the services, arranged in 1990 by Bob Lowden (1920-1999), and Maestro Preu invited veterans present to stand when “their” tune arrived. For once, applause during the music was entirely appropriate – a touching tribute to the veterans as they successively took to their feet. 

William Grant Still.
William Grant Still was the first African-American composer to have a symphony (his First, the “Afro-American”) performed by a major orchestra, and he is said to have regarded his Symphony No. 2 in G minor, which followed in the program, as the last in a trilogy of works depicting the African-American experience: the symphonic poem Africa concerned with roots, the Afro-American Symphony with life in the new world, and this “Song of a New Race” (as his Second Symphony is subtitled) aspiring towards a truly integrated American society. In 2017, 80 years after its composition, this clearly remains a long way off. 

It was a little unfortunate that the program booklet did not list its individual movement headings, so that considerable applause greeted the end of what many audience members presumably, and understandably, thought was a short single-movement piece. What is in fact the first of four movements opens with a swaying, lyrical theme in triple-time, followed by an equally amiable counter-subject. There is some development of these to justify the work’s symphonic status, and then the second movement starts with an even more honeyed melody bearing a disconcerting similarity to “The Way You Look Tonight”. This slow movement runs straight into a mildly jazz-influenced “moderately fast” third movement that does duty as the Symphony’s scherzo, after which the Finale adopts a somewhat dogged, aspirational pose, interspersed with muted bluesy trumpet riffs and reflective string passages. 

While the inclusion of such an unfamiliar piece was welcome, and doubly so when it was played and conducted with such commitment as the LBSO and Herr Preu brought to it, overall Still’s symphonies (he wrote five in all) do not for me form a body of work to compare with those of his American near-contemporaries like Piston, Hanson and Sessions, let alone slightly later figures such as Copland, Barber and Schuman. In my admittedly limited knowledge of his music, the short choral/orchestral pieces Wailing Woman and (in particular) And They Lynched Him on a Tree, wherein choruses of white and black singers successively cheer and lament the titular murder, carry a much more powerful punch. 

Anna Clyne.
After the interval, the full breadth of the program became clear: Within Her Arms is a raptly meditative 14-minute piece written by the 37-year-old British composer Anna Clyne in memory of her mother (mothers being archetypal heroes, as earlier noted by Herr Preu). It’s scored for an arc of 15 solo strings – three each of first and second violins placed left and right, violas and ‘cellos also left and right behind them, and three double-basses in the center. Starting with a downward-curving four-note phrase on the first violins, wisps and fragments are passed slowly back and forth between the players, creating a delicate web of sound that is simultaneously ever-changing and essentially unchanging.

Ms. Clyne’s characteristic technique of holding the first note of a phrase on one instrument while others move up or down creates a sound-world similar to the wetly cascading textures of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten; other earlier progenitors may include Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. As such, the work formed a wonderful contrast not only to the more conventionally elegiac Barber Adagio, but also the sentimental/romantic mood of the Still and the riotous Technicolor fantasy of the ensuing final piece, Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite

Ferde Grofé (left), with George and
Ira Gershwin and Paul Whiteman.
To me it is not very surprising that William Grant Still’s music is now largely forgotten, but the sheer resourcefulness and virtuosity of Grofé’s orchestral imagination across the five substantial movements of this suite made one curious about the other 150 or so pieces by this essentially one-work composer, so far as concerts go. Some of his other suites are recorded, but how about programming, for example, his Piano Concerto in D minor once in a while in lieu of the ubiquitous Gershwin Piano Concerto or Rhapsody in Blue

On this occasion, Eckart Preu and his orchestra did more than full justice to the Grand Canyon Suite, from the barely audible timpani roll and high violin tone that introduce the opening “Sunrise” movement, through the woodblock clip-clopping “On the Trail” (causing smiles of memory and murmurs of appreciation from many in the audience), to the final “Cloudburst”, a wind machine-blown torrent that rivals Strauss’s Alpine Symphony storm for effect (and with far fewer players), not to mention the positively Mahlerian apotheosis. Great stuff, and the perfect conclusion to an impressively ambitious and wide-ranging concert. 

Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, November 11, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: American flag: LBSO; Aaron Copland: Getty Images; William Grant Still: wrti; Anna Clyne: Javier Oddo; Ferde Grofé: landzastanza; Grand Canyon:

Monday, November 13, 2017

Rachmaninoff’s chamber masterpiece at Rolling Hills


"Second Sundays at Two", Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Fabio Bidini.
Andrew Shulman.
Rachmaninoff’s great Sonata for piano and cello in G minor Op.19 – though last performed at this series of concerts little more than a year ago (by Robert DeMaine and Kevin Kwan Loucks, and not reviewed on this blog) – returned to RHUMC last Sunday under the more than capable fingers of the Italian pianist Fabio Bidini, currently holder of the Piano Chair at Colburn Conservatory, and Andrew Shulman, principal ‘cello with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

The composer is said to have disliked calling the work a “cello sonata”, preferring the title as given above due to the instruments’ equal roles – the piano definitely not merely accompanying the ‘cello – and these two expert performers ensured that balance was maintained throughout between the impulsive, chord-laden piano writing and the ‘cello, so often soaring above its companion to reflectively latch onto and extend melodic ideas first introduced on the keyboard. 

After the brooding, becalmed Lento introduction, the main body of the first of its four movements brought rather more urgency than might be expected from the overall Allegro moderato and the espressivo e tranquillo marking to the ‘cello line. This propulsiveness, however, enabled a notable easing of tempo for the moderato second subject group that is first heard on the piano alone, and I was only sorry that Rachmaninoff’s marked exposition repeat was not observed – who would not want to hear two-and-a-half minutes of such gorgeous music a second time, especially as it is relatively complex thematically, and when the composer takes the trouble to write in a “first time” lead-back measure?

Rachmaninoff in 1909, a few years after writing
his Cello Sonata and Second Piano Concerto.
The ensuing scherzo and slow movement, relatively expansive and surprisingly brief respectively, both carry plenty of melodic hints that this sonata is coeval with the Second Piano Concerto, also written in 1901 and just one opus number lower in Rachmaninoff’s output, and this is even more the case when the finale arrives, dominated as it is by a lyrical second subject that is quite the equal in romantic memorability of its counterpart in the concerto.

Indeed, for my money, this sonata as a whole surpasses the concerto in variety of mood and structural tautness. Messrs Bidini and Shulman played as if they had been duo partners for years rather than the months which is apparently the case, and their emphatic, spot-on synchronized delivery of the fortissimo conclusion, marcato at its very end, brought the capacity audience to its feet (is there a more guaranteed full-house composer than Rachmaninoff, in southern California at least?).

Copper engraving of Beethoven in 1801.
One of the pleasures of these series of short (i.e. up to around one hour) concerts masterminded by the South Bay’s chamber music impresario, Jim Eninger, is that you so often come across something you have not listened to previously amongst the short fill-up items programmed either as a curtain-raiser to or an encore following the familiar main work. Sadly there was no time for an encore last Sunday but the duo’s opening item made up for it.

I had never before heard Beethoven’s 12 Variations for piano and cello on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO45, so it was a joy to discover a further example of his skill – in 1796, relatively early in his career – at extracting so much musical juice from a simple melody with such inventiveness, wit, and concision. 


Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, November 12, 2017.
Photos: Fabio Bidini: Courtesy Phoenix Symphony; Andrew Shulman: Shawn Flint Blair; Rachmaninoff: Portrait by Robert Sterl, ©picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library; Beethoven: Beethoven-Haus, Bonn.